Gov. Whitmer: Boost Michigan schools by $507 million, with more for neediest students

teacher in classroom

Michigan’s governor’s first budget would seek increases for students who need more support to succeed, such as low-income children and special education students.

June 2019: Whitmer plan to boost funds for neediest K-12 students hits wall in Lansing​
Analysis: Whitmer's budget banks on Michigan GOP backing one historic tax hike
Related: Six big proposals in Gretchen Whitmer’s first Michigan budget

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first budget recommends an additional half billion dollars for Michigan schools, including as much as a $180 boost in per-pupil funding and extra funds for low-income and special education children.

And the money may not be the biggest story.

Whitmer’s budget allocates money in what amounts to a “weighted” system, putting more dollars for students that experts say need them most, rather than Michigan’s current system of equal state funds for all students.

That’s a change that’s used in high-achieving states like Minnesota and fast-improving education states like Florida. It’s also a system that has been pushed by education advocacy groups and business and education consortiums that have studied ways to improve Michigan schools.

Whether the Democratic governor can sell her proposal - a 3.8 percent increase over the $13.1 billion now spent on public schools - to a Republican-dominated Legislature that may have other budget priorities remains to be seen.

Representatives for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, say the legislative leaders have not yet been briefed on Whitmer’s budget proposal and will wait to comment until after Whitmer presents her full state budget on Tuesday.

Whitmer’s proposal includes:

  • $235 million more to the state’s foundation allowance. Under Michigan law, the state provides funding to public schools based on a per-pupil allotment. That would boost per-student funding to $8,051 per pupil for districts at school districts now receiving the minimum per-pupil allotment. That would be an increase of $180 per student.

At schools that now receive slightly more per student, the foundation allowance would increase to $8,529 per pupil (a $120 per pupil increase). Whitmer’s budget, as budgets by former Gov. Rick Snyder, attempts to decrease the gap between the highest and lowest funded districts.

  • $120 million to increase state reimbursement to school districts for special education services. That’s a 4 percent jump.
  • $102 million to increase state support for economically disadvantaged, academically at-risk students, a nearly 20 percent increase. Total state funding is recommended at $619 million for this group of students under Whitmer’s proposal, which will provide an estimated $894 per eligible pupil.
  • $50 million to provide additional career and technical education opportunities for students. That’s an estimated $487 per eligible student. The current spending: about $50 per student.

The budget briefing paper doesn’t address where the additional half billion dollars would come from, though that may be addressed in Tuesday’s full budget briefing.

The paper, released by the State Budget Office Monday in advance of the complete budget release, called the school funding proposal a first step toward a new funding model. Under Prop A, the bulk of K-12 funding is distributed to school districts under a per-pupil model. While there are slight variations in per-pupil funding between districts now, some other states fund students not by district but by need.

That’s because children from disadvantaged backgrounds often need more resources to catch up with other children. For example, low-income students often step into kindergarten classrooms already behind academically usually and require more services to catch up. Extra funding for low-income students also gives schools the opportunity to lower class size and hire more classroom aides.

“The investments included in the Executive Budget are the first step in implementing a weighted per-pupil funding system,” the budget briefing paper says. “Based on recommendations of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative, the state should set a goal of eventually providing a base per-pupil foundation amount of $9,590 for all pupils, with additional percentage weights for students who require higher cost services, including special education pupils, economically disadvantaged pupils, and career and technical education pupils.”

Under Whitmer’s proposed budget, special education students would get a 92 percent boost over the normal per-pupil allotment; low-income students would get an 11-percent boost, and career-tech students would get a 6 percent boost. Whitmer’s goal, according to the budget briefing paper, is to eventually provide a 35-percent boost over regular per-pupil funding for low-income students, and a 10-percent boost for career tech students.

The state currently reimburses districts for 28 percent of special education costs, according to the budget briefing paper. Districts are required by law to provide special education services, meaning that costs not covered from dedicated revenue sources must be paid from the district’s general operating budget.

Whitmer’s budget increases reimbursement by about 4 percent, with the hope that the extra funding will free up school-level funds for additional intervention and support staff for special education students.

The budget proposes a 6 percent boost over normal per-pupil funding for students enrolled in career tech programs. Career tech is seen as a way to address the skills gap in the state, and is seen as having bipartisan support. The programs typically cost more than traditional classes.

The budget appears to be a sign that the new Democratic governor will aggressively tackle Michigan’s K-12 school problems. Michigan students rank in the bottom third in the nation in achievement in many subjects and grades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Achievement.

A Michigan State University study found that as funding for schools fell, Michigan’s education rank among states plummeted.

“Research is clear – from the School Finance Research Collaborative to MSU’s recent study – that we can’t keep shortchanging our students and expect better results,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.  

“That same research has shown that it doesn’t cost the same amount of money to educate every student, and this budget proposal reflects that reality.  Additional funding for at-risk, special education and career/technical education puts additional funds where they’re needed most to help all students achieve.”

A leading Michigan education advocacy group also praised the proposal.

“Gov. Whitmer’s commitment to investing much more in vulnerable students - including special education students - is a great step forward,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, the Michigan-based research and advocacy group. “We applaud her proposed move toward a weighted student funding formula. These investments need to make equity a foremost priority…  Equity and improved effectiveness go hand-in-hand - and ultimately best serve Michigan’s vulnerable students.”

“Where I can commend her is that she is looking at the cost of each student,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, chairman of the House’s School Aid and Department of Education appropriations subcommittee, which will work on the state’s schools budget. “The better we can do at it, the much better we’re going to be at education, because any principal, any teacher, can tell you that … special education students will cost more.”

The challenge, he said, is in the math.

During her 2018 election campaign, Whitmer talked about shifting higher-education and community college funding out of the School Aid Fund into the general fund to free up more state taxpayer dollars for public K-12 schools. Miller said he supports having that discussion, but it also would create a hole in the state’s general fund for sustaining funding levels for higher education without having to make cuts.

Miller predicted Whitmer might try to take a gradual approach to phasing out the higher education money, which totals about $900 million this fiscal year.

“Doing it all in one budget would be impossible without a significant decrease to higher education,” Miller said. “And I don’t think she wants that.”

The size of Whitmer’s proposed per-student funding increase “will make a dramatic impact in a very positive way for our schools and our children,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, a former middle and high school teacher.

Ananich, who said he expects to be briefed on the governor’s budget prior to Whitmer’s presentation on Tuesday, added that more funding for programs and services for special education students and career and technical education “makes total sense.”

“If we’re going to have a well-rounded education system and make sure we’re addressing the child, we have to make sure we address those things,” he said. “We’re way underfunding our (schools).”

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Mon, 03/04/2019 - 5:57pm

Saying the worst situations should get the most money sounds really good, but unfortunately is a bad way to allocate funds if our goal is to improve overall life for everyone in Michigan ... but makes the teacher union happy so oh well!

Jim tomlinson
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 7:38pm

Attitudes like that exacerbate the teacher shortage. Will assume you enjoyed the quality of teacher its union generated.

Michigan Observer
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 10:37pm

Matt is wise enough to understand that there is often a regrettable conflict between the welfare of the community as a whole and that of some members of the community. It may very well be the case that money invested in more talented, capable students will do more to advance the general welfare than the same funds invested in disadvantaged students. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to invest extra funds in poorer students at the expense of the overall community, but the costs of that choice should be explicitly acknowledged.

James Roberts
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 6:05pm

Wow, if we had only known that all you need to do to fix all our problems is to throw money at it by increasing our taxes. Good news for those of us with the means, we can always leave to where our incomes will be more welcome. I figure the fix on the pension tax will be another item on the Christmas list.

Jim tomlinson
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 7:05pm

You must mean the states with bad public schools

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 7:17pm

"high-achieving states like Minnesota" Worked well in Minnesota... can't remember what are the cities that the equivalent of Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Saginaw, etc. in Minnesota? You know places where we've already been disproportionately reallocating state resources for years with no tangible results.

David Andrews
Tue, 03/05/2019 - 12:00am

While it is important to ensure that every student receives an education sufficient to navigate tomorrows society, I believe it is important for us to not short funding to the very high potential students. Funding advanced learning programs for high potential students will have a much higher return on investment for the state. Advanced learning programs for high potential students will improve learning for all in the education system , and these children will be the ones that become new business leaders, innovators and job creators in the future. If we spend all of our education funds just to ensure that everyone can accomplish just basic skills, then we will end up with a population of dull people.

It is my opinion, it can neither be right nor wrong - only one opinion. If you would like to disagree, do so, but present facts and ideas, you will only make yourself look bad if you choose to call me names

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 9:02am

I absolutely agree, David.

One of the ugliest side-effects of the educational system's focus on equity and closing the "Achievement Gap" is that almost every school system has used this excuse to end programs designed to help gifted and talented students realize their full potential. This practice most severely affects exactly those low-income and minority children who have the capacity to produce works of artistic genius or make major discoveries if they had appropriate guidance and educational opportunities.

Upper middle class and wealthy families can afford enrichment opportunities or even specialized private schools for their gifted students. Poor, working class, and many middle class families cannot. The programs in public schools are all their students can or will have. Michigan's school systems have been deliberately denying gifted minority or economically-deprived children an education appropriate to their intellectual levels in the name of greater "equity".

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 10:19am

I agree. This brings to mind the saying, "A team is only as good as its weakest player". Adding money for special ed & at-risk kids while keeping high potential students' education stagnant isn't giving equal access to education. I had a high -potential student but there were no programs in our rural school district. Besides, I subbed for many years and the special ed students were mostly behavior problems. Adding money for their "education" would have improved their behavior.

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 8:48am

I simply don't understand why the Michigan School Finance Research Collective and Bridge Magazine keep repeating the lie that per-pupil education funding in Michigan has fallen over the past three decades. You appear to believe that most taxpayers can't do math and don't have a clue how to read a spreadsheet. Given the widespread decreases in academic achievement across almost all Michigan's schools over those decades, you might be right when talking about most people under 50. Remember back to 2016, when education consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates did the first of several funding adequacy studies funded by the state? Among the conclusions they reached after detailed study of the budgets of 20+ successful and unsuccessful school districts was that it took an average of more than $1,000 per pupil (a roughly 13% increase at that time) of additional spending for a Michigan school district to demonstrate a 1% increase in the number of their students meeting or exceeding grade level.

What kind of return on investment can Michigan taxpayers and parents expect from this proposed increase in school spending? Will schools hire more special education teachers and literacy coaches to provide more intensive interventions that totally fail to work for most, because they are imposed en masse on all students with reading deficits or disabilities, rather than being individualized? Will we keep on insisting that the most important marker of readiness for school work at a given level is the student's calendar age rather than the skills and knowledge they have mastered? Will school districts double down on mandatory weekly or monthly "progress" testing and provide even more test prep "drill and kill" to demoralize and depress students and teachers alike in an effort to "game" the M-STEP test rather than educate? Simply spending more money on the approach the majority of Michigan schools have been taking will not improve educational results by much, if any.

Also, what measure of inflation was the MSFRC using for their calculations that lead them to conclude that Michigan's school funding had "increased the least in the country" relative to inflation? Did that inflation rate include rent? Average mortgage payments? Was it nation-wide or regional? How do our school districts' pay scales compare to the cost of living in Michigan? The Commission clearly should have adjusted for the fact that Michigan's property values, which are the basis for the majority of school funding, dropped much earlier and much deeper during the Great Recession than in most other states. In addition, average family incomes have still not recovered from the loss of so many well-paid manufacturing jobs in the auto industry, more than 10 years after the nation's technical return to overall economic growth. Our population has also fallen in Michigan, particularly the population of families with school-aged children. What role should the serious erosion of Michigan's tax base play in how heavily we tax people and property to pay for education or other government functions? What role should the smaller number of children to be educated play in the number of school buildings and school districts taxpayers are asked to support.

I am willing to pay a bit more in tax to provide effective and equitable education to all Michigan students. But I don't believe that the current public (and charter) school systems will do anything with this extra money but more of the same, and I DON'T want to pay even more for greater intensity of a failing process.

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 11:56am

I'm with you, Anna. More money for the same miserable system will not improve anything.

Chuck Jordan
Tue, 03/05/2019 - 11:36am

I can understand why Matt and others do not want their taxes raised if there is not a plan to change the way we approach education. There is so much controversy and disagreement over what works to improve education that the likelihood of needed changes are doubtful at best. All students need a classroom and an experienced teacher where learning can maximize the potential of each student who wants to learn.

Fri, 09/13/2019 - 10:34am

I've read this at a few weeks ago, and I still want to talk about it. Even though funding projects for students in need is highly important, it's not morally right to take money away from others. What I mean is that instead of cutting funds for students who may not struggle, we should rather invest money in education equally for everyone. Instead of wasting money on unnecessary stuff let's just spend more of it on things we actually need. Sounds crazy, I know!